Academics and social media: a parallel world of open content

The open content movement continues to grow in education, and it might be bigger than we usually think.

Academics have been producing social media content since the early days of Web 2.0. Professors who blog, librarians with social bookmarks, campus podcasts – “Open content” can be understood to cover these extensive, growing productions.  Perhaps they should be considered as a parallel universe of academic content, alongside the more well-known open content projects like MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

But what is open content, and how does defining it shape our understanding of social media?  There are many definitions out there, and we can map them onto the social Web to yield a mapping:

  • Publicly accessible.  Non-private content. Shareable material (2010 Horizon Report).  While some of Web 2.0 is hidden, or deliberately “dark” (and we don’t know what proportion, because of its nature), the exposed part is vast.  Professors who blog, tweet, make Facebook updates, publish podcasts that the world can see within a Web browser are making open content in this sense.
  • Licensed.   Wikipedia emphasizes material “published under a license that explicitly allows copying and modifying of its information by anyone”.  OpenContent.org agrees.  Under these terms open but copyrighted material wouldn’t count.  The scope of this is larger than it seems, since one asserts copyright by publishing material, even without explicitly declaring it, as per the terms of the Berne convention.  Therefore open content in this understanding refers to materials deliberately licensed via open systems, such as copyleft, Creative Commons, or a declaration that the material is given to the public domain.
  • Technologically accessible.  How high are the technological barriers to accessing and remixing open content?  There are no bright lines for this point, only a shading gradation of accessibility types.  For example, one needs a Facebook account to view most Facebook content; to what extent is that a barrier?  YouTube videos can easily be watched (on a fast connection), but not so easily downloaded.  An Amazon e-book requires hardware running Kindle software; does participating in that regime establish an obstacle to content consumption?  Is the constellation of skills, hardware, and bandwidth to assemble in order to access user-generated Second Life materials?

Similar questions are raised for non-open content, and also for open courseware, commercial content, and anything in digital format.   Academic practice is very diverse in this, ranging from open source advocates to proprietary content supporters.  In such a context, we can say that academic productions in social media are diverse, and fit into different levels of digital access, depending on our assumptions.

Is there academic content published under such terms?  Of course.  We can find a good amount of material published under Creative Commons licenses.  For example, the accessCeramics project (Lewis and Clark University) Webs up images under an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  These photographs of American sculpture meet the licensing definition for open content, while easily meeting the simply open definition we mentioned earlier.  For another example, Middlebury College associate professor Jason Mittell’s blog appears under version 3.0 of that same license.

How much academic content is produced under such a licensing scheme?  This is a large question for broad research, which apparently has not yet been completed as of this writing.  But one can find many examples of academically produced social media content in the Web, and identify the subset that explicitly calls to openness on a case by case basis.

Previous NITLE blog posts on open content can be found here and here.

This post is aimed at the Hacking the Academy project.  #hackacad

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Posted on June 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm by Bryan Alexander · Permalink
In: Technology · Tagged with: ,

4 Responses

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  1. Written by Joe Murphy
    on June 4, 2010 at 9:04 am
    Permalink

    One of my concerns about Open Content as a movement is its reliance on binding legal licenses instead of an aggressive approach to protecting fair use rights. A “share-alike” license, admittedly, helps a community of users define itself – but some licenses seem to serve the purpose of documenting the creator’s definition of fair use.

    This may be the appropriate “equal and opposite reaction” to the current IP landscape… by establishing “safe harbor” in specific cases, we may be cultivating a worldview which isn’t articulated well enough yet. I still fear we risk losing something by granting the point that bricolage rights are negotiated individually and not an inherent property of the life of the mind.

  2. Written by Bryan Alexander
    on June 7, 2010 at 7:23 am
    Permalink

    That’s a vital pairing, Joe, fair use and open content.

    Do you think academic institutions are pursuing a dual track approach now, advocating for both of them?

  3. Written by Joe Murphy
    on June 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm
    Permalink

    I have not seen many institutions which are connecting the two issues publicly enough for me to call it an “approach.” Maybe that’s because it is happening in faculty meetings and campus events (or private meetings), but not in a public forum.

    Unfortunately, what I see more often is disconnected action, often with a very risk-averse approach to fair use, and a somewhat Pollyanna-ish hope that sufficient use of Open Access licenses (or even commercial licenses) will fill in where fair use is collapsing.

  4. Written by Bryan Alexander
    on June 18, 2010 at 7:25 am
    Permalink

    That’s a powerful second paragraph, Joe. Let me tease it apart, since it connects with what I’m seeing:

    -disconnected action: yes, this seems to be classic early adopter stuff. Individuals, sometimes isolated, practicing and advocating.

    -risk-averse approach to fair use: yes, many colleges have been trained to that after a decade of takedown notices and the general theater of IP enforcement.

    -Polllyanna-ish hope: sounds about right. I’ve never heard anyone on a liberal arts campus oppose fair use. Most like the idea. But that leaves us with hope.

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